Tearing down the Creative/Utilitarian divide

Tearing down the Creative/Utilitarian divide


This article was originally written and submitted to the “ACE 2011: 8th Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology Conference”. Unfortunately the event never took place so the article is now being published for the first time.


According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “the arts [are] modes of expression that use skill or imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others” (link). The same source goes on to mention that “The various visual arts exist within a continuum that ranges from purely aesthetic purposes at one end to purely utilitarian purposes at the other” (link).


This latest statement seems to contradict what we have come in recent decades to expect art to be: a form of expression that should not have any purpose other than entertain people and stimulate emotions. By association art’s facilitator, creativity, has also been tarred with the same brush: Many people, even the creative ones, have therefore developed a preconception that usefulness and creative expression are mutually exclusive.


In this article I set out to address this balance and bring home the idea that creativity should permeate all human endeavors, and that excluding certain areas of human activity from being conducive to artistic expression will ultimately make the overall human experience much poorer.

The Nefarious Divide

Art is one of humanity’s oldest pursuits: from the cave paintings and Venus of Willendorf of old to the most recent piece of modern music, movie or video-game, man has strived to express himself, depicting what happens around him and what impact these things have on his life.


More than on any other activity, creativity and art have pushed the limits of what we perceive as achievable by a human being: it’s hard to disagree with Johann Goethe, himself a man of art and science, when he says "Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving." (link)

In face of this it is easy to see that any pursuit that can inflame a person’s creative side will benefit from the immense potential and dedication that artistic expression brings out of an individual.


No better example of this exists than the men of Renaissance: to these polymaths, human expression was an all-encompassing experience and they did not partition their creations into watertight compartments. When you look at Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific illustrations you see art. When you look at his classical paintings, you see geometric and mathematical harmony. The same thing can be said of Albrecht Dürer’s tracts on human proportions and subsequent essays on beauty and aesthetics. These are only two of the many other luminaries from that era.

Venus of Willendorf: not the best example of Lean Manufactoring

Unfortunately, society’s drive for specialization at all costs has eroded the perceived value of this universal view. This caused a rift between things considered utilitarian (perceived as practical and immediately useful) and things that are considered artistic (perceived as contemplative and of lesser importance).


This divide has continued to widen due not only to the tendency above but also due to the barricading and self-imposed segregation of people on both sides. And so humanity was split between workers and dreamers, artisans and artists, when both things should have remained interconnected.


I believe it is up to each person to bridge this gap and put art and creativity back into stale areas of our lives. At its most basic this could mean making your human interactions more spontaneous and therefore more honest to your inner self. Certainly, for your personal satisfaction, it should mean making your job, your tools and the industry you work in be more creative!

Understanding art and creativity

The problem most people have in cross-pollinating creativity into their industries is the fact that many of the requirements for the production of “art” and being creative don’t seem to exist in these other areas. But can we qualify, in practical terms, what art is after all?


A song by the band Kamelot states that “a human heart demands to be admired” and, since art is nothing more than an expression of the human heart, the same admiration is required of art: a piece of art needs an observer to come to life. In fact it benefits from having a multitude of observers because it is always the creator’s intention to reach out and challenge as many people as possible.


Artistic creation should be open to all: this is the only way that it can be guaranteed that all people can take part in this form of self-expression. If you think about conventional art forms, you see that you only need pen and paper to start as an illustrator or writer. Only need a voice to start as a musician. Any other form of art should therefore have the same low barrier of entry. Conversely, art consumption should optimally be accessible to all, because it is from widespread interaction with observers that relevance is born.


As a process, all art creation is historically iterative. Not only is a single artistic piece born and fleshed out along multiple iterations of creation and evaluation (composing a song, painting a picture etc) but artists themselves learn and evolve as years progress (just check Picasso for an extreme example).


Last but not least, it is important to demystify that, even though art should not at its core be a greedy pursuit, we don’t need to be ascetic about it. At its most basic, there’s certainly nothing wrong with an artist making a living out of his craft. But the main reward for an artist should be intrinsic: personal fulfilment comes from art being a cathartically experience. That is what expressing creativity is ultimately about.


General creativity follows in essence the above requirements of art, in terms of both the reason and returns of its “manifestation”. I’ll go out on a limb and state that I believe that all creative output and art are one and the same thing. You get the same buzz when you’re writing, say, a really awesome Regular Expression as you do when writing a guitar solo and you get a very similar sense of awe and admiration from others when they see your intricate Regular Expression and listen to your virtuose melody. At least for as long as they don’t have to debug your RegExp... :)


So, ultimately, to me the lack of artistic drive is nothing more than the lack of creative vision. In a sense, the difference between both things is somewhat circumstantial and semantic. It’s more of a preconceived idea of what the output of art should “look” like than anything inherent to general creative output.

Tearing down the divide: the OutSystems example

It is a well known fact that Enterprise software production has historically been an extremely monolithic endeavor, prone to crushing everyone involved if ever a project crumbled. And crumble they do, very often and for many reasons, as brilliantly discussed in Edward Yourdon’s book “Death March”.


The sheer amount of pre-planning, validation and cost involved in creating most of these products made this segment virtually the sole property of a small number of huge enterprises who provided clients with one-size-fits-all offers. The other option, custom development, that allows for much more freedom has historically been prohibitive in terms of costs and therefore also never conducive to experimentation or personal flair. Because of this, Enterprise software was, and still is, exactly the sort of area where creativity and artistic expression has died a thousand deaths.


In 2001 OutSystems set out to address, in the words of its founder, “the last inefficient industry of the 21st century - IT” and bring down the time and risk of custom development. With that, OutSystems seeked to move the focus away from technical considerations and back into empowering software developers to again become “creators”.


With the release of the Agile Platform, OutSystems created a new language that allowed people to think differently when developing a web application. All of a sudden it was possible to design web pages, supporting business logic and the underlying data model in a cohesive and visual way, effectively providing web designers and application creators with a modern day pen and paper. This approach, together with the free Community Edition, democratized software development by diminishing the ramp up and admition cost in getting your creations from idea to fruition.


If you haven't seen these screens a million times before, you haven't been around here before

Furthermore, the fact that you visually create your final application (rather than a prototype) means that any improvements you undertake feel like simple increments on your previous work, as if you were just painting a new layer over your ongoing masterpiece. This iterative approach promoted by the platform proved to be a great fit for the agile development methodology, another extremely creative paradigm shift that was rising to preeminence at the time, so both things ended up very tightly coupled, not least in the platform name.


But what do web developers drawn out of the experience of using the Platform? It’s a well known fact that the technological aspects of most environments, from error tracking to distribution and version management problems, tends to put such attrition on software designers that no “fun” or sense of excitement ends up emerging from development.


OutSystems addressed this by reducing app creation to visual design; outside systems integration to simple extensions; app generation and deployment to a single button click and app evolution to visual incremental and reversible changes. Furthermore, app monitoring was greatly facilitated by a powerful integrated factory console and app sharing and hosting greatly streamlined by the optional cloud hosting approach.


Can traditionally dull Enterprise software development be fresh, exciting and therefore creative? OutSystems certainly believed, and continues to believe, it can.

Tearing down the divide: DIY

OutSystems is just an example of using creativity to drive innovation: An innovation in tools and processes than in turn changed the perception that the particular industry it addressed is crystallized and adverse to change. It has allowed people already involved in web and mobile software development to achieve a lot more with a fraction of the pain. More importantly, it has opened the door for less tech-savy (but perhaps more business knowledgeable) people to just get things done.


However, the world is still filled with occupations, endeavors and industries where magic has ceased to be felt, if it ever existed in the first place. Where people have conformed to their daily trudge, and hope for fresh challenges and a sense of appreciation has all but died. When this happens, it is normally the case that these people’s creativity has been so numbed down that it’s virtually impossible for them to think of any novel approaches to what they do and find a better way themselves. They simply cannot see the wood for the trees.


It is up to us, as creative people, to make an effort to bring the spark into these other people’s lives. Make them proud of their job, social activity or even their hobby (yes, even hobbies have their fair share of pain involved)
as we are proud of what we accomplish daily in our creations. More than just a source of great personal realization, it is a human imperative that we help them reach their full potential.


Can you, with your artistic sensibility or your creativity, bring a sparkle into someone’s life? What about a whole industry? If you have the drive and just need a quick push,  let me suggest a book I have recently read Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business” by Luke Williams. It addresses the whole process of creating (and not just thinking) outside of the box in a very practical and actionable way.


Now, go forth and just do it!